RECENT VISITS TO TORONTO LEAVE ME WONDERING IF IT MIGHT BE THE BEST FOOD CITY IN THE COUNTRY RIGHT NOW. -JRS
Remember The Far Side series by cartoonist Gary Larson? One comic depicts a shop in which the products rest high up near the ceiling, far out of reach. The caption states, simply, “Inconvenience stores”.
That illustration comes to mind when I visit some no-reservation restaurants, where dining out becomes a roll of the dice: maybe you get a table and the privilege to spend your money; maybe you get a shrug and the suggestion to come back, to spin the wheel again. Call that whatever you like, but you can’t call it “hospitality”.
Toronto’s Aloette, the diminutive daughter of Alo (the top restaurant in the country, apparently), does no reservations right. There, the host takes your name and number and offers an approximate wait time. If the bar upstairs has seats available, you can take them; otherwise, there are numerous options nearby for an interim drink. Ten minutes before your table opens up, Aloette, your new best friend, sends you a text message, so that you can settle up and stroll back. Very convenient.
Aloette’s interior: stunning, slick. Think neoclassical, Art-Deco-ish railway car meets bistro meets diner, maybe. A bar with backless stools runs down one side, down the other a line of beautiful booths, all brown leather and wood. At night, the space feels particularly special, a product of the striking design elements and smart lighting. You want to spend time here.
The compact menu comprises four sections, vegetables, seafood, meat and desserts. In terms of genre, French bistro cuisine serves as a foundation, but not a limitation; there’s a steak frites, for example, as Gallic as it gets, but also a burger and fries, and fried chicken. There are Asian references, Spanish references, Italian—all casual in concept, perhaps, but refined and elevated in execution.
On the night, our meal began with a complementary opener: petite slices of warm brioche, served with a quenelle of butter that had been blended with roasted nutritional yeast. An extremely satisfying take on bread and butter, comforting and warm and sweet. Delightful.
Florets of roasted cauliflower came under a cover of romesco sauce, that topped with golden raisins, almonds and slices of raw cauliflower. The thick paste of a sauce, big and bright with red pepper flavour and a bit of heat, paired well with the roasted vegetables, the punctuation of the sweet dried fruit. The texture from the nuts and raw cauliflower rounded out the dish. Delicious. $14.
“Crispy squash” consisted of chunks of that vegetable—no idea which variety—breaded and fried, a little tempura-like. Brown butter hollandaise brought that satisfying, creamy and acidic element you want with fried food, and toasted pumpkin seeds, tossed in some spice mixture and addictively delicious in their own right, added additional texture and taste. Parmesan did what parmesan does, boosting the complexity, making the plate all the more moreish. Superb. $14.
The beets with treviso (think radicchio, though more delicate), grapefruit, sorrel and crème fraîche offered a more interesting take on the standard beet salad, a broad spectrum of very balanced, very clean flavours – minerally beets, bitter lettuce, smooth cream, bright and lively herbs. $18.
The meal’s only disappointment came from the meat segment of the menu, a beef carpaccio covered in so many elements it seemed not just Baroque, but Rococo in its excess: a mayonnaise of some sort, almonds, egg yolk, beef tendon, parmesan, roasted broccolini – a chorus of voices loud enough to leave that of the the beef unheard. $18.
Service was, in a few words, attentive, courteous, kind. Maybe—just maybe—a touch too fawning (being called “Sir” by someone just a few years your junior rings very contrived), but I’m stretching somewhat. All in all, professional, on-point and on par with this price range.
Speaking of, given the portions of the plates and their competent preparation, Aloette strikes me as fairly priced. Although several meat and seafood options reach into the high twenty- and low thirty-dollar range, most items average around eighteen—including all of the vegetable options (which you must try). Two people could make a very satisfying meal of three plates and a glass of wine each and get away with spending $50 per person, tax and tip in. For a restaurant of this calibre, one this capable, a very reasonable bill.
Aloette left me highly impressed. I wish it were closer, or I closer to it—and that other restaurants would follow suit with that no-reservation system.